Soren Kierkegaard, A Perspective.

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Who was he? He was a Danish philosopher. He was born in Denmark, Copenhagen and was known as the father of existentialism. By the time he was 21, he had lost 5 of his siblings and his mother. He was the baby of seven children. He was 42 when he died. H wrote a book called ‘On the Concept of Irony’, which was a great work in which he criticized Hegel’s philosophy. In his later works he criticized the State church, because he found that it was not compatible with his own Christian beliefs. There’s a story about his father, who was a Shepherd and one day he cursed God for which he never forgave himself.

He tried to bring ontological importance to the Cartesian individual. This reminds us of virtue ethics of Aristotle where ‘being’ played a great role. This was against the ideas of the species or the whole observed in the philosophy of Spinoza, Hegel and Marx for whom the individual is more or less not relevant. It sounds like he was making a transition from Plato to Aristotle. He wrote: ‘Each age has its depravity. Ours is … a dissolute pantheistic concept for individual man”. In other words, each age has its immorality. Ours is…debauched pantheistic contempt for individual man. The character of our moral corruption is not pleasure or indulgence or even sensuality, but rather a loose pantheistic contempt for individual. Pantheism is about the fact that everything is God. But where’s the place of an individual here? If I’m totally determined, then what happens to my freedom and individuality? I’m here analyzing what he said more and more on purpose to find out what he is trying to convey. However, he was not following Descartes’ footsteps at all. His well known epigrams are ‘the conclusions of passion are the only reliable ones’ and ‘What our age lacks is not reflection but passion’. He thought the entire history of philosophy has been about matters which have been on the wrong track. Since the beginning of intellectual activities in the West the Greek thought has focused on structural map of metaphysical forms, revering reason or experience to understand and explain the world around us. Nevertheless, none of these different ways of telling us about the nature of reality have been the basic human condition. Where ever we turn we’re confronted with the necessity of making decisions. Choice is our first step and companion, which is very heavy burden. For instance, my father is very sick and he is in the hospital. However, I rather be going on different trips while my siblings are there for him. Should I cut my trip short to be with my father or not or when my best friend is dying of cancer, should I travel with friends to different country than be with her at her death bed?  

In his ‘Journals’ he says, ‘What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know… the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die’. However, Aristotle said those who know, do. This theme like in classical music runs throughout all existentialist philosophy, and is what marks him down as ‘the first existentialist’ even though he would not accept this label himself. If his thoughts are shifting from Plato to Aristotle, then why he seems to be getting away from the latter who gives preference to knowledge before you do? His philosophy sounds a bit like Kant and his action ethics. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. (Jesus on the cross) To make a decision I must know.

The answer to his question is religious faith, which for him is a subject of passion not reason. Is he confused when it comes to Christianity? Of course, the knowledge Jesus spoke was not about how much information we have concerning certain issues. The knowledge he referred to on the cross was regarding sacred knowledge. Perhaps Aristotle was not talking about the sacred knowledge that Plato believed in. It seems Kierkegaard was speaking of experiencing what we believe in Christianity. He was searching for a truth which was for him rather the Platonic Form of the Truth. He doesn’t want to go with Aristotle either. He wanted to go beyond the two great thinkers, because Aristotle’s either/or logic goes against Jesus being fully man and fully God. Hegel went about solving this problem by bending the rule of logic. But Kierkegaard doesn’t seem to be doing this. Reason can only wear away at the basic reality of faith, but it never justifies it. Here he sounds like Kant when he spoke of pure reason and its capabilities. Even though we might get involved in the proofs of the existence of God as Anselm or Aquinas, however none of these can help us with a belief in God. Here he seems to be justifying what Kant did to those proofs, namely rejected them all. These proofs are rationalistic in nature. On the other hand, we have no right to use Aristotelian logic of either/or for God. After all Aristotle himself didn’t use it for practical wisdom, that is ethics. For example, we are not to apply this logic for the Ten Commandments. We ought to choose to believe in God passionately and personally, not as sheer intellectual practice. Is he going against the personal God, which could be nothing but the creation of our mind or just personal God of Judaism and Christianity?

An authentic belief demands its power from within, as a ‘leap of faith’ without consultation with reason to know whether what we’re doing is ‘right’ or ‘true’. This guidance of reason which is to reassure us whether our decision is the right one or not puts aside the necessity for faith, if the existence of God were merely a matter of common-sense or rational reflection. When God asks, Kierkegaard said, Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, he tosses and turns the whole night, because it was his only son from Sara. But he didn’t listen to what reason told him to do. He jumped into the abyss of nothingness hoping the Lord would hold his hand from falling for ever. The same is true of Job who never cursed God to His face regardless of whatever had happened to him. This is what Kierkegaard meant by ‘leap of faith’. This is not illogical but super logical.  Abraham listened to his heart knowing that it had its own reasoning. Daniel was a Hebrew prophet and his life was saved in the lions’ den, because of his faith in God. There were other Christians who were killed by the lions in the coliseum in Rome.  

In his later works he often attacked the institutions of the Christian church, which he believed are the very antithesis of Christianity. Going through the process of a Christian life by attending church and following ordained ethical precepts along with reciting scripture has absolutely nothing to do with the religious life, if it doesn’t involve a personal and direct facing up with the divine. We usually hear our preachers tell us Jesus died for our sins in a vicarious way. What if he died as a result of our sins? What if it was our sins that nailed him to the cross? Were not people doing this to Kierkegaard when he was shunned and criticized by the church? Was not he crucified on the cross for what he had not done? Are not we doing this to ourselves these days?

This is true for other Religions as well such as Buddhism where average people go to the Temples without tasting the sacred knowledge which is the essence and the heart of this Religion, namely Buddhism. A very religious business man was going to a mosque or masjed when he saw a man taking a nap not far away from the door to the Muslim Temple. Being noon and time for prayer, he woke him up and told him it was time to go inside and do the ritual prayer. He opened his eyes but didn’t move a bit. Once the businessman was about to leave he saw the same thing. He asked him why he didn’t attend the prayer time at the mosque. In response he said, I’m afraid the whole time you were there you had nothing in mind but how much profit you made for the day. However, I have been having nothing in my heart except remembering Allah at every moment I have been here. However, I’m not blaming you at all for what you did, because I don’t see myself above you. You did what you were supposed to do. But why are you here near the Mosque and not elsewhere, the businessman asked? He said if you kept your heart purified, you would find that there’s no difference between Kabah and idles shrine. Of course, we don’t have to take these symbols literally. Great mystics, such as the Sufis or Dervishes in Islam and other Religions focus more on the inside rather than the outside. You have been told not to commit adultery, Jesus said. But if you lust after a woman, you have already done that in your heart. (Not an exact quotation) We ought to pay attention more to the seed in a fruit than utter part of it, which is to protect it. However, the utter shell could destroy the reality, which is located in side. Kierkegaard believed this was what the church was doing, that is instead of protecting the inner reality of Christianity, it was rather choking it.   

As Kierkegaard was reaching the end of his life, his fame suffered tremendously for both his problem with the Church and fight with the press. Nonetheless, he has received such fame today not as being the father of existentialist movement, but as a wonderful essayist combined with great convincing style.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers by Philip Stokes)